A proposal to drill a saltwater injection well near Lake Arlington, which plays a major role in the water supply chain for North Texas, is drawing widespread opposition and may set up a showdown over state and local control over urban drilling.
BlueStone Natural Resources II of Tulsa filed a permit request with the Texas Railroad Commission in January seeking to drill the well on the western edge of Lake Arlington to collect the excess gas and brackish, or salty, water produced by the company’s other natural gas wells in the immediate area.
Fort Worth, Arlington and the Trinity River Authority already have filed protest letters with the commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas, about drilling the well so close to an “essential resource.” The commission has scheduled a hearing before an administrative law judge for May 24.
But the battle over BlueStone’s project is taking on additional meaning because it raises questions about exactly how far cities can go in regulating the oil and gas industry following the passage of House Bill 40 in 2015. Part of the bill’s purpose was to restate and re-energize the state’s control over the energy industry.
Fort Worth, Arlington and other municipalities have banned wastewater injection wells. Officials in those cities say this may be the first time their ability to take such an action has been challenged since the adoption of the law.
“There is going to be a powerful argument on the part of the operator that the Legislature, with House Bill 40, took it (that authority) away from you, that they withdrew the authority the city had to ban these things,” said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth environmental attorney who helped write the city’s drilling ordinance.
Under its ban, the city of Fort Worth has already rejected BlueStone’s request, said Randle Harwood, city planning and development director. Fort Worth imposed a ban on wastewater injection wells within the city limits five years ago — but it has effectively blocked them since 2006.
“There is not a groundswell in the community that we need another wastewater injection well,” he said.
Arlington also bans wastewater injection wells and particularly prohibits any kind of drilling within 600 feet of Lake Arlington’s reservoir area, according to the letter filed with the commission. It also blocks any “salt water disposal lines” under the lake or within 100 feet of easement surrounding it.
The proposed injection well would be located in an area of far east Fort Worth near Loop 820 that is about 9,300 feet from Lake Arlington Dam, according to the city of Arlington. The neighborhood is a mixture of industrial and residential areas. Not far away, on East Rosedale Street, are other oil and gas operations, including a large compression station.
In a statement, BlueStone said it is important to note that there are other oil and gas operations in the area and that the location meets the railroad commission’s strict guidelines “aimed at ensuring that a proposed project have no adverse effects on the surrounding community or environment.”
In its application, BlueStone says it would drill a well that would go up to 11,600 feet underground. It says the deepest freshwater zone is about 2,000 feet below the surface. In its statement, BlueStone said that its well will only be used for its nearby operations and that approval will actually cut down on truck traffic.
“BlueStone safely operates more than 1,000 wells in the Barnett Shale, 300 of which fall within Fort Worth City limits. BlueStone works to foster and maintain good relationships with all local governments and stakeholders in areas where we operate, and that is our goal in this matter,” the company statement says. BlueStone acquired the Barnett Shale assets when it purchased bankrupt Quicksilver Resources last year.
On Tuesday, the Arlington City Council voted to hire Austin lawyers and engineers to help the city protest Bluestone’s permit request before the commission. “If there is any potential to put that dam and our water supply in jeopardy, that is a bad idea,” said Walter “Buzz” Pishkur, director of Arlington’s water utilities.
Ingrid Kelly, an Arlington resident and a member of Liveable Arlington, has spoken out against Bluestone’s application. “Should the integrity of the well fail, we would have another Flint, Michigan, crisis on our hands,” Kelly said, referring to the city where cost-cutting measures led to tainted drinking water. “Our water plant would not be capable of removing those toxins.”
Denton fracking bill
When House Bill 40 was passed, it was commonly known as the “Denton fracking bill.”
Lawmakers passed the bill after Denton became the first city in Texas to ban hydraulic fracturing. HB40 prohibits cities from imposing such a ban, giving them limited control over the oil and gas processes.
The new law includes a four-part test for allowing cities to regulate drilling operations above ground, such as emergency response, noise and setbacks. But the law says those controls must be “economically reasonable” and can’t hinder or prohibit the work of a “prudent operator.”
To provide some comfort to cities with longstanding ordinances, such as Fort Worth, the bill contains a “safe harbor” provision that says any ordinance or other measure in effect for five years that has allowed drilling should be considered commercially reasonable.
The oil and gas industry pushed hard not only to get rid of the Denton ban but also to prevent it from being repeated elsewhere. Industry leaders and lawmakers as well as the governor said they hoped it would end a patchwork of regulations across the state.
Wastewater injection wells are an integral part of the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” process. When operators frack a well, water, sand and chemicals are injected deep into rock formations to free oil and gas. The process also generates large amounts of brackish water that is then pumped into injection wells.
“Saltwater disposal wells present the most interesting dividing line of what the Legislature decided to do with HB40,” Bradbury said. While lawmakers clearly wanted to control what happens below the surface, a disposal well, with trucks bringing in the waste, for example, have a big above-ground component, he said. The Legislature recognized the ability of cities to regulate above-ground operations. Disposal wells like this one present both below- and above-surface impacts. “It’s a mixed question,” he said.
While there is little doubt that local agencies can regulate land usage and whether it fits into other plans for the area, there is some question if a city can just outright ban them, Bradbury said. While he supports the ban, Bradbury added that “there is that risk that the city may have exceeded HB40.”
Fort Worth’s ordinance was held up as a model during deliberations for HB40, Harwood said, and “if we mess with our ordinance it opens it all up.” The city has a master plan for the area west of the lake that includes, among other things, open space and a trail system. Eugene McCray Park is nearby.
“If there is a saltwater injection well and industrial activity, is it compatible with everything else? That is the open question, ‘Is this an appropriate use?’ We don’t think it is an appropriate use anywhere in the city,” Harwood said.
In its letter to the commission, Arlington emphasizes that Lake Arlington is the sole source of untreated water for its Pierce Burch Water Treatment plant, which produces up to 76 million gallons of water each day for the needs of the city’s more than 380,000 residents.
It also talks about how Lake Arlington provides terminal water storage for the Tarrant Regional Water District for transporting water from its east Texas reservoirs for use in Tarrant County cities. Lake Arlington is also the sole source of water for the Trinity River Authority’s water treatment plant that provides water to Bedford, Colleyville, Euless, Grapevine and North Richland Hills.
The Trinity River Authority echoed those concerns in its protest letter to the state.
“Whether we get into issues with legislation and the interpretation of HB40 is something that will potentially occur,” Pishkur said. But he said they are focusing their efforts on convincing the railroad commission to not authorize the permit.
Kelly said she hopes the city is successful in fighting the permit. “I do hope that HB40 does not prevent us from protecting our drinking water, our health and our property,” she said.
Beyond talking about the potential threat to water quality, opponents to BlueStone’s permit application have raised concerns about seismic activity that is often linked to wastewater injection wells. Arlington’s letter states that these wells pose “different, more serious, hazards than hydrofracturing or drilling.”
“These earthquakes are typically in the deep earth and typically deeper than the injection wells, but there is a strong link where they are occurring when the pumping starts and stops,” said Mark Petersen, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project.
Seismometers installed by the state of Texas recorded 16 earthquakes of less than 1.5 in the Fort Worth Basin in January, two of which were associated with the Irving-Dallas sequence, and 14 near Venus in Johnson County, the bureau reported. A total of 28 earthquakes were recorded in Texas.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers became so concerned last year that it announced it was expanding the exclusion zone for drilling near Joe Pool Lake’s dam from 3,000 feet to 4,000 feet to protect its structural integrity. It also said it was seeking to limit wastewater injection wells within 5 miles of the dam because of the effects of “induced seismicity,” or earthquakes triggered by human activities.
Texas Railroad Commission Executive Director Kimberly Corley questioned the federal agency’s actions, stating that the Railroad Commission has the authority to oversee the oil and gas industry in Texas, including hydraulic fracturing and injection wells. The commission and the corps are still talking about the issue.
“We continue to consult with them (the commission) to try and come up to an understanding on what is best for mineral extraction and dam safety,” said Clay Church, a corps spokesman.
After a rash of earthquakes in North Texas, the commission in 2014 approved rules requiring drillers to provide additional information before sinking injection wells where there has been seismic activity. Drillers also are required to provide information on the history of seismic events. The state also can suspend or terminate a permit if seismic activity occurs near an injection well.
After a hearing on the merits of BlueStone’s application, the commission will issue a proposal for a decision, to which the parties can respond, according to Ramona Nye, an agency spokeswoman. The commission will then take final action, putting any decision off for several months, she said.
Bradbury said it’s a good sign that Bluestone’s permit is going before an administrative law judge, since many of these requests previously were rubber-stamped by the commission. But he also won’t be surprised if the cities of Fort Worth and Arlington end up going to court to stop it.
“The operator will say the world changed with House Bill 40 ....” Bradbury said.
Staff writer Rafael Sears contributed to this story, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.